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Boating in Washington’s San Juan Islands

By The Ahoy! Crew
Published September 8, 2022

As you sail past forested islands with rugged, snowcapped peaks in the background, you’re struck by the beauty. 

The graceful lines of a vintage wooden sailboat catch your eye as it slips past. Shortly after, a modern motor yacht speeds by. A seaplane flies overhead as a passenger ferry comes into view. You spot a volcano on the horizon. 

In a cove, fishermen work their nets. A sea lion surfaces then enters the cove in search of dinner. Just above the treetops, an eagle glides in gentle, deliberate loops.

And there, what's that? Black fins cut quickly through the water. Orcas! It's your lucky day. You've spotted one of the local pods.

Rounding a rocky point you see a gorgeous wooden house in the trees. Its floor-to-ceiling windows face the passage. What a view they must have!

Among the stunning natural scenery and wildlife of the San Juan Islands, you'll find highlights of manmade beauty in the design of vessels and local architecture. 

It’s no wonder the San Juan Islands is a cruising destination renowned by boaters around the world. 

The San Juan Islands

The San Juan Islands archipelago is a group of over 400 islands in Washington State’s Puget Sound, north of Seattle. The islands are nestled between Washington’s mainland and Canada’s Vancouver Island. Just across the Canadian border is Victoria, B.C. and to the north, Vancouver. You can sail from here into Canada and continue north in breathtaking scenery all the way to Alaska through the Inside Passage.

The islands range in size from small rocks jutting above the surface to inhabited islands with small towns, villages, and farms. The highest point is 2,400-foot Mt. Constitution on Orcas Island.

Powerful currents

One of the most exciting experiences in the San Juan Islands is sailing through the powerful currents between the islands. The tides pouring into and out of the Strait of Georgia on the east side of Vancouver Island, B.C. flow through the islands, causing large tidal swings and swirling water. The whirlpools in Rosario Strait will amaze you at peak tidal flow during spring tides. They look intimidating, but an experienced skipper in a seaworthy craft can navigate safely through them with ease. Less experienced skippers may want to wait until slack tide for a less exhilarating passage.

Killer whales

Seeing killer whales is a common occurrence in the San Juan Islands. You might be lazily fishing in calm water one evening and see one breach the surface nearby. Another time you might turn to see several orcas swimming along side your boat as you navigate the strong current between the islands. Sometimes you'll just see shiny, black dorsal fins in the distance. Whether you see them near or far from your boat, you'll always remember the time you saw killer whales.

Where to charter your boat

The best places to charter a boat for your San Juan Island excursion are Bellingham or Anacortes, WA. You'll find a full range of sailboats and powerboats for bareboat charter here. If you'd rather kick back and let someone else run the boat, you can find many crewed yachts for hire here, too.

The largest selection is in Bellingham, on the mainland near the islands. This beautiful university town is also home to a thriving restaurant and brewery scene. Anacortes sits on Fidalgo Island across a short bridge from the mainland. The San Juan Island ferry terminal is here. 

You can charter bareboat or crewed yachts in the San Juan Islands, though the selection is limited. It's worth looking around here, though, for lower bareboat charter rates.

Several companies in the islands offer crewed charters for fishing, whale watching, and sightseeing. These run from a couple of hours to longer excursions of a week or more.

Docks and moorings

You'll find just the right nighttime atmosphere to suit your taste in the islands. You can spend the night docked among luxury yachts, or on a mooring buoy at a remote marine park.

Dock space runs around $2.50 per foot in the summer at luxury marinas like Roche Harbor or Rosario Resort. Here you can have a power hook-up for an extra $10, get a hot shower, do your laundry, and even take a swim in the pool. Buoy and anchorage fees run around $35.

For a more peaceful experience, you can tie off to a mooring buoy for $15 a night in one of several Washington State Marine Parks. You'll wake up in the serenity of one of the most beautiful spots you'll find anywhere.  

Island attractions

If you feel the need to get off your boat and stretch your land legs a bit, the islands offer relaxing pastimes. The three largest islands of Orcas, San Juan, and Lopez all have restaurants, cafes, art galleries, beaches, and more. If you like to imbibe, you'll find wineries, breweries, and even two boutique distilleries here. Many visitors enjoy farm and food tours here, as well. These islands also have bus, taxi, and rental car services to help you explore.

However you choose to cruise the San Juan Islands, the time you spend here will be some of the most memorable you’ve spent on the water.

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